May 4, 2004

Cynical or Naïve? [11:13 pm]

Ed Felten raises an important counter-point to the all-to-common perspective that those who act to push content control technologies clearly have a clever hidden agenda to achieve their latent (and nefarious) ends — Dare To Be Naive

Ed’s point is well taken. In fact, I would argue that there is another dimension to the situation that supports his position — the role of ideology. While we’ve all seen movies where the villians revel in their evil, the fact is that there are not a lot of people who can remain functional while consciously pursuing a villianous goal. Granted, their actions might be nefarious, but it is only the true sociopath who can actively pursue destructive ends while declaring the opposite and remain functional.

The fact that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” derives from the fact that, in order to function in an increasingly complex world, everyone is forced to construct simplifying models of the way that the world works. When these models (a) work and (b) are buttressed with rationalizing arguments, we get something more potent — an ideology.

The problem with ideologies is that, even though they work, they rely upon simplifications that will not obtain over time. These simplifications will eventually be the downfall of the ideology, but sometimes it takes a very long time before the failure of the ideology is recognized, meaning that a lot of bad (and potentially quite destructive) decisions get made in the interim.

Examples: the “domino theory,” the “free” market, “the government that governs best, governs least,” the “tragedy of the commons”

The copyright fight is driven by the perception that creativity occurs when there is a guarantee of reward; that the market is the instrument to deliver that reward; and that the institutions that generate that reward in the market should be defended at all costs. Each example that is dredged up to counter that ideology is rationalized away as an exceptional case — but the examples keep coming.

Eventually, the ideology will die, and a new one will replace it. The stakes in the fight are not making sure that the ideology eventually falls; rather it’s all about figuring how to make sure that the damage that derives from the actions based upon the mistaken ideology are not so destructive as to take us all down with it.

Thus, we didn’t win Eldred; but we did get Creative Commons. We didn’t defeat the DMCA; but we got Chilling Effects. Software can be copyrighted, but we also have the GPL. Companies are learning how IP can be the instrument of a new enclosure movement, but groups are learning to leverage community to defend the intellectual commons. We’re stuck with software and business method patents; but we keep showing just how destructive they are.

Ernest is right; our opponents are not (all) stupid people. But they don’t have nefarious ends. Rather, they’re acting within the confines of the ideologies that they believe explain the way the world works. They aren’t evil or stupid; they’re just confused and frustrated. The old methods aren’t working, even though they *know* their methods are “right.” In fact, they’re in exactly the same boat that we are. And we know we aren’t evil.

Ideologies are hard to defeat, because they’re invisible to those who hold them. To us, it’s an ideology; to them, it’s “the way the world works.” Beating it will take time, being honest about what is happening and working really hard to devise a new way of looking at the world that we can collectively agree upon.

We can’t afford to write them off as “evil.” That’s seductive, but dangerous because it simply isn’t true. They’re just doing what they think is right. We have to respect that as we work to show them that they’re mistaken.

To wit: See Siva Viadhynathan’s story over at the Lessig Blog: Free Culture and the Future of Music, Part 1: Ad Hominem, Ad Nauseum [via Copyfight]

(Sorry: this is probably (more than) a little long-winded for this space. I’ll try paring this down in the morning; or at least working to make sure that I haven’t been too pedantic. In the interim, my apologies.)

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